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A Preview of the 56th Chicago International Film Festival

A Preview of the 56th Chicago International Film Festival

Of course, what would a film festival be without at least one entry that is centered around the cinema itself? This year, the Documentary sidebar takes up that cause with “Kubrick by Kubrick,” a brief and not-especially-enlightening look at the work of the reclusive and revolutionary director that is notable primarily for using recordings of interviews that he did with favored journalist Michel Ciment to tie together the usual assortment of film clips and archival materials. Another maverick individual, Greta Thunberg, is the focus of “I Am Greta,” which follows her on her 13-month-long journey from her first school strike to call attention to environmental concerns to speaking before the UN Climate Action Summit. The offbeat-though-uneven “The Prophet and the Space Aliens” tells the story of Claude Vorilhon, who in the Seventies, following an alleged encounter with aliens, formed a quasi-religious organization and became a modern-day prophet to his followers and a scam artist leading a sex cult to his detractors. Religion also takes front and center in “’Til Kingdom Come,” a gripping, eye-opening and occasionally frightening examination of the real meaning behind the seemingly bizarre connection between evangelical Christians in American and Jews in Israel. One of the most affecting of this year’s doc crop in “The Reason I Jump,” Jerry Rothwell’s deeply empathic adaptation of the memoir of 13-year-old author Naoki Higashida that offers an immersive and visually impressive account as to what it is like to be a non-speaking autistic person using subjects from the U.S., Britain, India and Sierra Leone.

The Black Perspectives program includes two films that are already being discussed as prime candidates for end-of-year awards. On October 23, there will be a drive-in screening of “One Night in Miami,” in which actress Regina King makes her directorial debut with a fictionalized drama, based on the Kemp Powers play, that speculates on what transpired on one night in 1964 when four African-American icons—Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge)—came together following Clay’s upset win over Sonny Liston. Another icon, Martin Luther King Jr., is at the center of “MLK/FBI,” a documentary by Sam Pollard that examines in startling lengths that the Feds went to in spying on King in an effort to discredit him as his power and influence grew. On a more macabre note, there will be a drive-in-only screening on Oct. 16 of “Bad Hair,” Justin Simien’s decidedly uneven follow-up to his impressive debut film “Dear White People.” It is a 1989-set horror comedy about a young African-American woman (Elle Lorraine, who is quite good) who is inspired to get an expensive and painful weave in the hopes of getting ahead at the music video network where she works and where image is everything—alas, the weave seems to have both a mind of its own and an ever-growing taste for blood. Essentially a variation on “Little Shop of Horrors” blended with the kind of high-concept social satire and lurid genre beats that Larry Cohen used to specialize in, the film does have some funny moments, good ideas and a game cast (including Vanessa Williams, Lena Waithe, Usher, Laverne Cox, Kelly Rowland and, perhaps inevitably, James Van Der Beek) but Simien cannot quite figure out how to pull them all together and lets a story that might have made for a killer episode of “Creepshow” run on for nearly two solid hours that start dragging pretty heavily after a while.

The City & State sidebar, dedicated to films made in and about the area, is anchored this year by a quartet of documentaries. In terms of sheer size and scope, nothing in this year’s lineup beats “City So Real,” Steve James’ sprawling and absolutely compelling five-part documentary series on current-day Chicago that spends most of its time focusing on the tensions brought about by the aftermath of the killing of Laquan McDonald and the 2019 mayoral election, jumping ahead a year in the final episode to show how the city responded to everything from the killing of George Floyd to the arrival of COVID-19. Filmmaker Jiayan “Jenny” Shi’s “Finding Yingying” has her investigating the mysterious 2017 disappearance of Yingying Zhang, a former classmate of hers in China, who went to the University of Illinois in Urban-Champaign in 2017 to study agriculture and disappeared six weeks later. Sort of a companion piece to the “Belushi” documentary, Heather Ross’ “For Madmen Only” offers a look at the tumultuous life and groundbreaking work of Del Close, another Chicago comedic icon who helped to revolutionize the world of improvisational comedy but who never broke through in the way that his students did. Although the results will most likely be manna to comedy nerds, it seems strange to see the life of someone who changed the rules of entertainment forever treated in such a by-the-numbers manner. On the other hand, “The Road Up,” co-directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, is a powerful look at CARA, a Chicago-based job-training program run by Jesse Teverbaugh and, by extension, the difficulties that those who have gone through incarceration, addiction, and homelessness face as they try to find their way to gaining and keeping a steady job.

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